From DC to Newport Beach, The Urban/Ultimate Connection!

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From DC to Newport Beach, The Urban/Ultimate Connection!

Would you believe I met these two beautiful boys’ father almost 30 years ago in the 4th grade in Derwood, Maryland. Fresh from Ghana, about as skinny as a string bean, a thick Ghanaian accent and smile about as wide as his face, our teacher Mrs. Watson introduced us and appointed me as his buddy tasked with showing him the ropes. I can remember shaking his hand for the first time that day in the classroom. He was standing upright, confidence beaming, even while he struggled through pronouncing my name. I knew instinctively that we were going to be friends.

Starting in the 5th grade we played football on the same team all the way through high school, usually vying for running back and wide receiving roles together, but always playing corner opposite one another. Every day, Monday through Friday, my mother schlepped us from Derwood to Chevy Chase for our beltway football practice, where my father would pick us up. And while he tried to play basketball with us, most of our teammates would agree that George was mostly reliable on 'defense'.

Probably taken in 7th or 8th grade, George is #14 and I am wearing the hoodie in the front. In between us is Nick Hellie, my childhood best friend. Nick passed away in 1998 shortly after we graduated high school. Both George and myself gave eulogies at his funeral.

Probably taken in 7th or 8th grade, George is #14 and I am wearing the hoodie in the front. In between us is Nick Hellie, my childhood best friend. Nick passed away in 1998 shortly after we graduated high school. Both George and myself gave eulogies at his funeral.

George never missed a day of school. I remember him being awarded the “Golden Penny” for that feat as a child. Every day he went from school, to football practice, to work at Pizza Hut (where he’d save his coins, place them in a jar and send them back to his little brother, Richard, who was still living with his mother in Ghanna), and then home to finish his homework. To this day I have yet to meet a person as dedicated, focused, hardworking, and who maintained such a big heart while facing as much adversity, as George. He took care every year growing up to give my own mother a Mother’s Day card.

George played his way into college where he received his degree in Accounting from Catholic University, shortly thereafter going to work for Earnst and Young. He got married to Angie, a nurse who took pleasure in referring to me as 'White Mike' for quite some time (and maybe...actually I think still does!), and who gave him these two gorgeous twins—Jeremiah and Isiah.

Today the family lives in Newport Beach, California. And when George asked me about karate schools, which Angie had brought up on some other occasions, I simply called up Grandmaster Taylor and asked him about his school in Newport Beach—I wanted to make sure the kids would be in good hands. He assured me that it was a fantastic school. When I discovered that it was run by Master Brookman, who called me personally to inquire about my friend’s children and to set up a time to meet them, and whom I have always respected as a both a person and martial artist, I was excited.

My last visit to California in January of this year, 2017. Me with George and our childhood friend Eric, #10 in the team picture above.

My last visit to California in January of this year, 2017. Me with George and our childhood friend Eric, #10 in the team picture above.

George texted me the pic of the boys in their yellow belts at 6:30am on a Sunday morning, which was this morning (What on earth George was doing up at that time I couldn’t tell you. But obviously a lot has changed since his days at Pizza Hut!), and inspired me to really think about how life unfolds in unbelievable ways. It is hard to explain the sense of joy of his story brings me, as I still recall the skinny little African boy struggling to pronounce my name, adapt to a new country, and help support his family at such a young age. All the while doing it with a classic smile on his face.

When I first reached out to Grandmaster Taylor I was merely looking for a mentor, but I received a myriad of other unforeseen benefits. In this one, I am so grateful to bring together these two facets of my life that are so special to me, and that have done so much to help me make it through what at times seems like an overwhelmingly challenging life, making it more beautiful and worth living than I ever imaged it would be! This is evidence that one of the great benefits of our own school—Urban Kempo—is that we can continue looking after one another, both through and in martial arts schools across the country.

Here is to my lifelong childhood friend, his beautiful family, and my martial arts family in California!! 

Thanks for sharing the pics George! I'll see you in a few!

Sensei Mike

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Urban Kempo Kids Program 2017

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Urban Kempo Kids Program 2017

When I opened the school four years ago, I had a vision. And while it may have been an honorable one, it fell susceptible to change. As the past intersects with the future at that moment we call the present, and as present moments compile behind us altering the course and character of our history, new consciousness’s sometimes evolve, especially for folks like myself who are compelled by an urge to push limits, discover and create. Indeed, the past few years have slowly but surely chiseled and crafted a new identity and purpose for me, largely attributable to my experience working with the Urban Kempo children.

In this respect my beliefs are aligned with a prevalent concept in many eastern philosophies asserting that we become reborn from moment to moment. And for those of us who take responsibility for our own lives and imagine futures that look vastly different from where we are in the present—call us dreamers maybe—we manage an ability to transform our lives with as much agency as we can muster, while surrendering to an outside world that we in fact exercise very little control over.

In other words, we adapt. We improvise with a desire to maneuver and improve within a chaotic and ever evolving world that posits constant, unpredictable and at times overwhelming barrages of adversity against our grain. And herein lies the essence of the martial arts—to manage chaos. To find peace within adversity. Clarity within fog. Safe haven when in danger. And to live with an assertive passivity keeping a close compass towards victory, whatever that means to you, against formidable odds. And all of that is fueled by the one's persistent belief that one can accomplish something, whether in the moment or something longterm.

It is important to understand that our children are in what is first and foremost a character building program and second a martial arts program. At its pinnacle, the martial arts are a conglomeration of principles of both character and movement. In the early phases of our “kids” program, while it is physically demanding and we take care to lay a foundation of martial arts basics, we place a much greater emphasis on what we refer to as the Five Shaolin Principles, which are Self Control, Sincerity, Etiquette, Effort and Character.

Kids come to understand over time that the advanced physical movements—the fascinating aspects of Kempo that one sees in the movies, the Kempo that most people desire to know intuitively, but the Kempo that very few have the patience, endurance and determination to accumulate—are reserved exclusively for those students who earn the right through the consistent demonstration and superior understanding of the Five Shaolin Principles. Subsequently, the “Little Ninjas” will compete to advance into the “Kids” group, the “Kids” into the “Juniors”, and the “Juniors” into the “Next Generation”, as this progression symbolizes one’s honorable passage towards a very prestigious goal, which is really a lifestyle symbolized by an Urban Kempo black belt.

It follows that the second thing to understand about our program is that it is a program of commitment and time. While your child will learn to punch and kick effectively, our student body becomes curated over time to fashion leadership qualities, or at a minimum to align their actions as closely as possible with that little voice inside that is their conscience. Because ultimately, any way one decides to depict the program, in addition to having a skillful way of communicating with and motivating children, I exercise a unique ability to teach the martial art of Shaolin Kempo, which embodies what many experts believe is the most efficiently disabling fighting style ever created.

Having been placed in situations where I’ve had to decipher if, how, and to what to degree to use my body in efforts to mitigate potentially violent circumstances, as a teacher I am unusually attuned to the physical, emotional, and potentially legal (whether one is defending against a group of bullies on a playground or an armed robber on the street) repercussions that could result. It is imperative that our young students grow in maturity as their skills in the art progress. I fear that while most of our young students are great children with all the potential in the world, the emphasis on character and maturity, which develop in unison, have been lost amidst an emphasis on selling belts. What contributes here is that while many instructors have the best of intentions, they simply lack experience with adversity as well as an understanding of how to function within it. Compounding this lack of experience is an insufficient understanding of people in general, which becomes an irrevocable impediment to their ability to cultivate these character skills, skills that Urban Kempo is arguing are integral to the art—period. In short, many instructors are wearing the wrong uniforms.

When asked what sets us apart from other schools, it is that both myself and my apprentice are no strangers to adversity, but rather our life’s challenges have come to define much of who we have become. Our struggles with and victories over adversity have taken us to levels of achievement that we otherwise wouldn’t have discovered.  We share a sincere desire to assist others in their struggles, which we see as blessings in many ways, be them rooted in anxiety, special needs, confidence or any other of facet within the myriad of challenges that we as a community face. We believe that one’s weakness can become their strength. Rather, we believe that one’s weakness WILL become their strength, when supplemented by belief. Our lives evidence that our personal struggles lend us fertile terrain in which to grow strong rooted characters, which are the bedrock of the arts--not sheer physical ability. And, we believe that we have unique skills in understanding and communicating with human beings that aid in those efforts.

Indeed, the martial arts has served us both well through our own personal struggles. To imagine our lives without the arts is almost unfathomable.

While my vision for Urban Kempo has evolved over time, it has always been one of my goals to refashion the martial arts landscape in Washington DC. This is a lofty goal—I am aware. It will require a team of instructors who understand adversity and share my passion for people, as well the belief that we can improve. But as Urban Kempo started out with one teacher—me!—touting a lofty vision out of Iwo Jima park almost five years ago, today I work out of the finest neighborhood in the DC area, I have the support of the most successful grandmaster in the country, and the assistance of a young protégé who I consider a prodigy in the realm of understanding and caring for people, in addition to being my finest student. That is a darn good start!

Having been teaching some of my kids for almost a decade, our school has yet to award a black belt to a child. And while many schools rely on awarding the black belt as a motivating factor, we try to ingrain a different motivational system, with the black belt being the culmination of a long process that marries the Five Shaolin Principles with an extensive and complex martial arts curriculum that has been developed, passed down and vetted by generations of Kempo grandmasters and Shaolin Monks.

If you attend our “Next Generation” youth class (reserved for ages 10 and above and ranks blue stripe and above) you will find a group of kids taking pride in their ability to demonstrate their characters, which they’ve worked very hard to tailor. The kids in the Next Generation class, especially the brown belts, are in preparation for an Urban Kempo black belt and are excited to prove that they are sincere in their goals. I admire these kids, as well as their families who have trusted Urban Kempo to nurture them in the arts. This is a special and exclusive group of children that will prove themselves great leaders in the outside world. 

I thank you for taking the time to learn more about our kids program. While I personally thrive in the adult class environment as a laid back place to teach the art I love so much, with students who are professionals and my peers outside of the school, and where I can let my guard down a bit and be myself, I enjoy an extraordinary amount of pride and derive a powerful sense of purpose through working with our kids. It is more than an honor--it has become my life.

Helping the kids along their paths reminds me of who I am and how I got here, and it reminds me that I have a responsibility to share what I’ve learned with each and every budding generation that comes. I believe that the sky is limit. Every second of every day I continue to believe that. Not by choice, I just do. 

With gratitude,

Sensei Mike

 

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Black Belt

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Black Belt

This past September, Urban Kempo celebrated its first homegrown black belt promotion ceremony, which is a defining moment for any dojo, and especially for ours.

Honestly, if it were up to me, I would eradicate the belt system all together. As stated on the website, and written with passion from the heart of a martial artist who had been teaching in a park for the previous year, “To me the martial arts is a journey to be enjoyed and I heavily warn against preoccupations with achieving belts because they never mean what people want them to mean...When the experience becomes secondary to the belt, one accomplishes only a bland façade of martial arts.[1] Unfortunately, a vast majority of people today view the black belt as a commodity of achievement or a symbol of physical prowess, something to brag about to their friends or to parade upon their social media accounts. Something seems to have been lost amidst the instant gratification whims of today's society. Karate schools have become so prevalent that the black belt has become a spectacle for purchase, a touted accomplishment along side the master's degree, or an additional attribute to list upon one's dating site to demonstrate that one is both interesting and well rounded.

But let me put it like this:

A true martial artist adopts the arts as a way of life, not as a chore or task to be performed in pursuit of some future goal. We refer to these types as “old” vs “new” black belts respectively. My best students over the course of my career have at times, literally, forgotten their ranks. Whether after wearing an instructor’s belt for a couple of years, or after we spent that year practicing in the park, when inquiring about rank I received blank faces at times. My students had simply forgotten their own rank! They probably didn't realize that their expressions of ignorance warmed my heart, as I interpreted their awkward responses as symbols of their “old heartedness”, if I may use that as a word. But I was pleased to learn that it wasn't a priority to them.

The preoccupation of the black belt reveals itself through the thoughts, feelings and actions of the student, and ultimately in their martial arts. It will reveal a distinction between the “old” and the “new”, between the “us” and “them” axiom that invariably exists within any community, as communities are defined first and foremost by commonly shared values and practices. Attempting to fit the “new” into the “old” is like trying to force a square into a circle. Not only will it not fit, but the circle will become sensitive to the awkwardness of the elephant attempting to fit itself into the room. Eventually, that student will quit. It was never a lifestyle for them anyways. And the actual belt--a martial artist’s symbol of comradeship--well, it simply resonates as a piece of cloth with no real meaning.

Here it becomes timely to address one of our black belts, Soraya Garcia-Semedo, as a shining example of what a black belt should be. Soraya came into the dojo at age 13. After taking her first lesson, she sat awkwardly in my office next to her mother Leila. She had literally just moved to the United States after being raised overseas. Her Garfield Street address was her first American address ever. Long black curly hair, wearing a perforated tank top and basketball shorts, and the gaze of a young teenage girl who was unsure of her identity, but beaming with an awkward and childish confidence in who she was, she sat slouched in a chair with her elbows on her knees, staring me in the eye as if to say, “So what on earth are you going to do for me?” I knew in my heart that this little girl had the soul of a black belt, and that she just required a little cultivation, and a LOT of motivation. I said to her, “You’re gonna love it here.” She responded, “You don’t know me!”

Soraya at 13, and Sensei Soraya at 17!

Soraya at 13, and Sensei Soraya at 17!

It takes one to know one!

Soraya began helping me teach at age 14 and soon thereafter became my first protégé. As the leader of my first very own dojo, I expected to develop an apprentice in time. But I didn’t expect fate to deliver a 13-year-old girl to my doorstep. I decided to lay some laws down early, and treated her time in the dojo like an extracurricular activity. Whether she wanted to or not, I wanted to see her a few hours a day—every day. Like a father type, I was probably a little too demanding of her at times. And she certainly, like any teenage kid, created her fair share of teenage-like excuses. At first she was considerably awkward during her time at the dojo. But what 14-year-old girl isn’t? (Yes, I grew up with sisters!) And her very first lessons…well, they sucked. But I had faith in her as her spirit evidenced, and was sure that in the coming years other people would take note of the burgeoning star that she was destined to become.

Her old black belt nature soon came into maturity, and she not only developed a sense of responsibility to maintenance the dojo, but she grew into it like a home. This became evident when she told me that when she opens the doors to the dojo, even on days when she doesn’t feel like going in, that the smell of the dojo made her feel like she was “home.” As the creator, founder, father…whatever you want to call it…of Urban Kempo, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened those doors to that same feeling. That in itself speaks volumes of Soraya's commitment to the arts.

Like a sick mother who has the flu, there have been many days when Soraya arrived at the dojo, snotty nosed and fatigued, and opened the doors to oversee classes. After her school lets out at 3:00pm, she schleps her way through the streets of Arlington, backpack and all, routinely making her first stop the dojo. She is adored by the children, parents and adults alike. If she doesn’t know you by name just yet, she will by the end of the week. She has assumed the role of a surrogate parent, at such a young age, by her own choosing. No doubt a master in the making, Soraya is the embodiment of a black belt. And oh yeah, I forgot to add that while she’ll be the last one to ever do it…the girl can fight! I really mean that actually--she is an amazingly talented martial artist.

If Soraya has become the surrogate mother of the dojo, then our black belts have surely taken on the role of aunts, uncles and godparents. In my absences, these students routinely step up and become custodians of the school, which by definition can mean people entrusted, “with guarding or maintaining a property.” At any given time you can catch one of them teaching the lower ranks, answering the phones, talking to walk-ins, or simply practicing their beloved art. I am so proud to have this group set the future trend of the Urban Kempo black belt. After all, the best way to become a black belt, is to behave like one. So newcomers, please observe!

So congrats to all of you who have put in the hard time, sweat and sacrifices necessary to achieve your new ranks! Thank you for choosing my school as the grounds through which to pave your own personal journeys. You’ll never know quite how much you mean to me. And as a black belt, you may never know just how much of a difference your simple example impacts those around you.

One last thing:

Forgive me if I neglected to address the physical accomplishments on behalf of my students. Absolutely, I take the training seriously as a couple times in my own life it has come in handy. Actual self-defense is not a joke and indeed, sometimes without realizing it, we are creating weapons out of our bodies. Primarily because of this, a proper black belt spirit becomes a requisite to obtaining the physical ability to carry out the discipline, at least in my dojo. What you have as an end product is one who is capable, but at peace. And unlike an athlete who trains to score a goal and celebrates upon the realization of victory, a true martial artist mourns the physical execution of his discipline in the street. Rather, we derive enjoyment by practicing the art safely in the company of our peers and under the supervision of our teachers.

And that is what constitutes a dojo—peers and teachers who come together under the same roof at the same times to engage in a common practice that brings them enjoyment. In our home, that practice just happens to be the art of Shaolin Kempo. At the end of the day, it is all really as simply as that!

To Urban Kempo’s new black belts!

Sensei Mike

 

[1] http://www.urbankempo.com/founder/

 

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What is KempoKats?

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What is KempoKats?

Just over three years ago when we opened Urban Kempo, we began with a small group of families and some adults, most of whom followed me over from Old Town, Alexandria, a neighborhood that will most likely harbor our 2nd Urban Kempo location, one sweet day.

In keeping together throughout a very long year of discovering, negotiating and building out our home in Clarendon, we looked to various locations and contrived numerous social activities in efforts to keep our community close and our relationships strong. After all, time and space are imminent adversaries of longevity, a goal that we remain resolved to live out.

These activities ranged from BBQ’s and dinners at some of our homes to lunches at some of our client-owned restaurants (shout out to Old Town’s Rustico). Most notable, however, were our Kempo Camping events where we’d set up shop for a couple of nights, play games with the kids during the day and roast marshmallows at night. Kempo Camping not only served as a way for the kids to maintain ties with their dojo buddies and also their sensei, but it offered the adults a forum in which to share long, meaningful, and sometimes personal conversations with each other for hours under the stars and over a few beverages. What started as a group effort to save a dojo community began evolving into a close network of friendships

To an outsider it may not have been as apparent (and perhaps even to us who were caught up in the emotional moments of a recently fractured dojo community), but these events, spaces, contexts and interactions that characterized those moments symbolized a shift away from the conventional dojo paradigm towards something very different. By spending time together in the privacy of homes and other spaces traditionally reserved for exclusive friends and family gatherings, we began grafting new social spaces and their relative ways of interacting onto conventional teacher/student ones. The product became our Urban Kempo, a school with such close knit ties that one sometimes wonders at the end of the day what the ultimate product of the school really is.

(Clearly, the art of Kempo is one of them, and I stand behind my accomplishments within the industry, my skill as an instructor and practitioner, and also my direct lineage through Grandmaster Taylor, to defend any criticism along that line. But due to my nature as a people person, our unique history as a community, and the martial art’s ability to effect so many amazing ends, I tend to see a martial arts “product” as something relative to each student, and as different than most people within the industry see it—something more dynamic and more valuable than a mere ability to punch and kick, stand still for a prolonged period of time, or recite the principles of a certain dojo.)

For us it seemed difficult to separate simple notions of karate from business, and business from relationships, relationships from feelings, and in the end it became clearer and clearer as the Urban Kempo support system proved more extensive, more reliable, more genuine, and more stable, that I was not only entering into a brand new business venture, but that we were developing a new kind of family structure as evidenced by the time we were spending together, the places in which we spent that time, how we came to think about and prioritize each other, and of course, the sacrifices that enabled all of this. If actions reflect the nature of a reality, then wouldn’t all of this suggest that Urban Kempo was becoming something slightly different than a mere karate school? And that our roles in each other’s lives were more substantial than mere client/service provider relationships?

Here is where my perspective on KempoKats becomes relevant.

KempoKats is MY turn to invite MY family into MY home, and break it in without the belts and uniforms that mark it solely as a space for practicing discipline and respect for authority. KempoKats is a chance for the kids to come together in a space that very much feels like it belongs to them, while also being recognized by them as a space that they are in many ways forbidden to be “children” in, and work out some of those tensions. If you knew what I knew and have seen what I’ve seen (and parents, I know a lot of you can relate), then you’d see the children constantly struggling between their instincts as children to play within a space that feels so much like home, and a potent awareness that they are in a place that enforces strict principles such as discipline, self-control and respect for authority. It is a beautiful struggle that the children endure. And I’m so happy to have provided the battleground for it!!

I am actually OK, even as a karate teacher, to see the children relax a little bit too much, hang around the dojo a little bit too long, and maybe have just a little bit too much fun inside of our space. It is primarily my presence in the dojo that makes it so challenging for them. After all, they’ve enjoyed time with me, their sensei, in their living rooms, basements, dinner tables, backyards, restaurants, parks and even on vacations. I have known some of these children by name even before they were born! And at the same time, they know me first and foremost as Sensei, a figure that commands respect and one that they strive to impress. They have a hard time distinguishing my role in their lives at many junctures, and at many junctures mine theirs. But don't some of these tensions resemble those that they encounter at school, at other people's homes and indeed at home? I have an immense amount of empathy for these children, and a very deep compassion for them.

We just held our largest KempoKats to date. Being raised on Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, R2 and Darth Vader, I was stoked to screen Star Wars Episode 7, precede the movie with games and pizza (and Sugar Shack doughnuts thanks to Janice!), and give the kids a space to develop their own childhood memories, establish new affinities, and contribute notions and feelings that will one day become nostalgic for them. All of this made possible by a network of families that came together during the Spring of 2012 with the common goal of keeping me involved in their children’s lives. How humbling is that? 

I know that we are not the first dojo to have kids nights, but I am asserting that we stand unique amongst dojos in that our Urban Kempo kids nights radiate a much more special vibe--no biases here!

I’ve repeated this saying many times and I’m going to do it again here, “birds of a feather flock together.” The tone that we set and the vibe that permeates our dojo has not remained exclusive to that small group, as families with similar ideals and values conducive ours have established their auras all throughout the dojo. You’ll notice in our logo the silhouettes of a parent and a baby leopard, placed to symbolize the family dynamic of our dojo. I hope that the next time you find yourself sitting in the dojo, you are able to visualize yourself and your child in that picture, which was designed for us by our own Ronald Aikens—Urban Kempo’s only black belt and father of two our junior green belts.

In conclusion, I suppose I’m making the point here that Urban Kempo is not merely a karate school. It is a home. Dojo traditionally means “school” and sensei the “teacher” within a dojo. But I’ll be darned if that is all I am to these children and to many of my adults. And I’ll be livid should our dojo be described as a mere school. We are something different than that. But we already know that of course!

So there is my perspective on KempoKats. I hope to see you all at our next get-together. You know you’re invited!!

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Lineage

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Lineage

Please click on the Kenpo Lineage Association Logo to learn more about Urban Kempo's quest for lineage.

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Laughter?

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Laughter?

I love what Chris Rock says in introducing Eddie Murphy at the SNL 40th Anniversary: "When I was young, comedy wasn't work...comedy was something that got you sent to the principal's office." This comment resinates with me, resurecting memories of a younger version of myself enjoying more than anything else--more than scoring touchdowns...game willing three point shots...family vacations to the beach...I would include falling in love, but laughter has always been such a pertinent and valuable component there that I hesitate to address the two entirely seprately--simply knowing that something that I did caused either one person, or even better, an entire auditorium of people to break down laughing against their wills.

Even during times that could have been deemed inappropriate, there was something about laughter that convinced me in my soul that it was OK to pursue. That it was forgiven. That it was pardoned by a higher power because of its deep spiritual significance (or at least that is what it felt like to me). As long as the relative antics didn't harm, offend or hurt anyone--as long as they were unanimously appreciated--serving a detention (or perhaps quite a bit more than I'd prefer to admit in this public medium) due to a well received act of comedy was an honor. The accolades and joy that one received by spreading smiles and drawing giggles from his/her peers were well worth the time spent playing paper football (oops, I mean detention!).

Some people will never relate to or understand this, but the rush that laughter can bring to some of us is one of the greatest that nature can provide human beings. I believe that laughter has spiritual potential and I believe that it brings people together. From the time that a baby is born until the time that baby is grown and married, there is rarely a thing more genuine, appreciated and desirable than a true smile and an uncontrollable laugh. Somewhere along the line I was told that I needed to grow up, and at some junctures in my life I thought I was beginning think along that line as well. But time after time I found myself defining much of my day, much of my experience as a human being, and measuring the fulfillment of my days by laughter. It is something I was never willing to part with.

If you look on Urban Kempo's web site, we emphasize four things: Fitness, LAUGHTER, Discipline and Community. What kind of martial arts school emphasizes laughter on the first page of their web site? I'm pretty sure that Urban Kempo is the only one, but please feel free to do the research on that. Indeed, it is a marketing risk to do such a thing. But I don't care--once you become a student in our school, you'll come to realize just how integral it is to your overall experience. It lightens the spirit, breaks down boundaries, and brings people together. To me it is a community building essential. It brought us together as kids and it continues to bring us closer together as adults. I can't imagine my world without this precious gift. Nor would I assume that many of the Urban students could either. I would have created one strait up boring place to be! 

Nobody really ever wants to grow up. I mean sure, we wanted drivers licenses and then we couldn't wait to be 18, and then it was 21.  But growing up is one of the most challenging things for any of us to do! We enjoy the liberties of childhood way too much to let go of them so easily, which is one reason why you all bring your children to Urban Kempo--to learn discipline, respect for authority, how to follow directions...you know, all of those things that smoothen the path towards adulthood! But how much have we really let go of that? Just as a kid doesn't quite grasp why he'd stop playing with his legos to go to piano practice, sometimes I don't want to put down my book and go to work! This brings to mind a recent post I saw on Facebook. It was a picture of a dog laid out on the floor with a caption reading, "I can't adult today. Please don't make me adult!" (Staci if you're reading this, that was very well placed on your page!) Clearly, I'm not the only one that feels this way!

No kid wants to stop playing, and neither did I. Hence, the greatest hat trick of life--recreating childhood under the umbrella of Shaolin Kempo! To quote one gentleman and good friend of mine who knows me and my teaching style well enough to peg it so acutely, "Even with adults, he displayed an impish character that disarmed people and reduced inhibitions. In other words, it made them like children..." (see https://mykemporomance.wordpress.com/…/a-toast-to-michael-…/) It should go without saying that my life has been given meaning through the experiences of the people that come to my dojo to sweat, learn Kempo, and have the opportunity to feel like children again, even if only for an hour or two out of their day. It certainly keeps my spirit youthful and my heart open amidst the rugged realities of our adult world.

Returning to Chris Rock, he elaborates: "When I was young I didn't think comedy was a job...comedy wasn't work...comedy was something that got you sent to the principal's office...and then I saw Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live and it changed everything...not only could comedy be a job, it could be a career. Not only a career, it could be the coolest career ever." I can't help but to relate to the comedian's vision here--to make a career out of comedy. To take that childhood sensation and elongate it throughout life, and better yet, to extend it to other people. Even better yet, to share it with other people! 

I don't want to give the impression here that my dojo is one big comedy show, as if you're going to walk through our doors and see a clown bouncing around in lobby. I understand first and foremost that people come to Urban Kempo with goals in mind, and I go the necessary lengths in order to keep a professional tab on those goals. As far as I know, I am the only Kempo instructor in the region receiving direct training and mentoring from one of the highest ranking Kempo Grandmasters in the world. I work inside the dojo six days a week and teach upward 70 private lessons and 12 group classes per week. I do the adult grit behind the scenes like paying the bills, changing the filters, making Costo runs and of course, working out. Just as comedians endure sleepless nights, hungry stomachs, and penniless days on the road to their destinies, I understand and have lived through the sacrifices necessary as a martial artist to carve out a place for Urban Kempo to exist in Northern Virginia--not a simple feat I assure  you, albeit one I'd be willing to fight for 100 times over. I can be as serious and focused as one needs to be to survive in a cut throat, strange and unpredictable world. But I won't be affected by it. Urban Kempo's lighthearted student body and its collective personality is my key to ensuring that. I know for a fact that many of my students identify.

The personalities that enjoy and contribute to the laughter that is so inherent in Urban Kempo keep me forgiving, soft hearted and always believing in the good in this world. Urban Kempo is more than a martial arts school to me--it is a necessity that keeps my spirits closer to where they should be. And LAUGHTER, above all else, I think contributes to that end more than anything.

To me martial arts means a lot of things, but first and foremost they are here to help us live happier and healthier lives. It is set apart from most other activities because of its interactive nature, which lends itself to that community element that I've thrived in my whole life. Laughing has always been my best medicine, and it is something I've never been able to accomplish in measure on my own very well. It has always taken a group of us!

Thank you Urban goers for the magic that continues to be a part of my life!

Sensei Mike

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Urban Kempo!

The martial arts industry tends to have a ratio of roughly 80% to 20% kids to adults, or at least that’s what the big dogs in the business have told me and that is what I’ve seen reflected in competing dojos. But after managing my Old Town dojo prior to opening Urban Kempo, I turned out adult classes that were equal to, and often larger than, my kid classes. This gave me reason to believe that I could mainstream Kempo into the adult workout circuit, and this is particularly why I chose Clarendon as the location for my first dojo.

The single-family homes that line the high-rise residential corridor between Rosslyn and Ballston offered the perfect demographic for me to maintain the child market, while also carving out new spaces for Kempo in the adult mainstream.

Of course, I am up against some major obstacles–spandex in particular. To better understand my perspective on that check out my blog post on the issue.

But barriers have never gotten in the way of me and my goals, and neither will the gi prevent Urban Kempo from becoming the premier workout venue for adults throughout Northern Virginia and the greater DC area. Nothing sells Urban Kempo like our personality. Please take a peek at our video offering a portal into our adult Kempo world.

This is a place where you can come to be yourself, workout hard, let down your guard and laugh with other professionals, and of course LEARN A PRACTICAL LIFE SKILL! If I thought there was a better avenue to to accomplish these goals, I would place my efforts there. We are on to something strong with Urban Kempo–something new.

Big thanks to all who came out to make the video, and to each and every adult that is running with us right now! You probably don’t realize it, but you are making history with me in bringing Kempo into the mainstream, which is a beautiful thing!

See you in the dojo,

Sensei

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Focus.

The number one most important thing for a child to learn in my dojo is focus. And the best way to grab a child’s focus is to stare them in the eye.

This not only allows you to keep their attention, but they begin learning at this young age how to look into someone else’s eye. This simple skill is one of the greatest they’ll ever acquire. I can remember learning at the age of four how to shake a hand and look someone in the eye from my grandfather, a six-foot-six two star rear admiral. He was teaching me lessons that I would use for the rest of my life.

Here you see me holding a three-year-old’s eye. It may appear as if he’s being scolded, but he’s not. He is learning to see me, and beginning to learn how to learn from an elder. He is still and he is focused.

He is too young to know why he is looking me in the eye, but he knows that he is interested in me for some reason. At Urban Kempo, this is where the learning, development and progress begins. Without this connection, I’ll assert with honesty, not much can be accomplished.

These moments occur in the semi-private setting, and this picture portrays the two primary differences between Urban Kempo and its alternatives–the semi-private lesson, and of course, me!

In all seriousness, this is an important moment that could change the trajectory of this child’s life in extraordinary ways. Thank you mom (who shall remain anonymous) for capturing this moment with your iPhone!

Best,

Sensei

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A precious birthday gift.

Its hard to believe that just a few minutes before this picture was taken that this same group of people were donned in sparring gear and exchanging punches. And a few minutes before that were throwing each other on the floor, sprinting through the park and passing out in the grass. And not long before that they were going on with their daily lives, blending in amongst society as if they didn’t have anything particularly interesting to do that evening, like a belt test.

This picture was taken on Friday, August 22, my birthday.

People always want to know what you want for your birthday. A shirt? A pair of shoes? A nice dinner? That’s all great and nice, but that is not why or how I live my life.

I tend to get excited about things and write lengthy pieces that most of you don’t bother with so I’ll leave it at this:

This gets me high. This is why I sacrificed everything I have to open Urban Kempo. This is what I dreamed of cultivating—a diverse group of people coming together to sweat, push themselves to new limits and to laugh together, all under the guise of that martial art that we call Kempo, the very martial art that saved my life and continues to give it meaning.

I see an incredible amount of chemistry in this picture and that is a special thing. Where else can you go and be yourself, sweat with people, punch them respectfully, and have such a good time? I don’t know but if you find another place on earth like this please holler–I’m in.

To capture our chemistry in a photo, and to give me the opportunity to sit back and look at a still picture of it…is the best birthday present ever. It is indeed precious.

Lastly I want to emphasize that I believe in my soul that laughter is so important in life, and that I think it is the key element that brings us together as a community. People who genuinely laugh together come together just as do people who genuinely cry together. It is the basis of our community.

Thank you all for being who you are and for coming to see me every week and for an AMAZING test!

Very thankfully yours,

Sense

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Spandex, Kempo and the Mainstream

Urban Kempo has been in Arlington for just over a year now and people are beginning to know about it. Still, the word “Kempo” lacks the household recognition as say, Crossfit, Spin or Yoga, all of which have successfully carved out niches in the adult mainstream workout circuit.

So I wanted to take a quick glance at these three alternatives to the globogym model in efforts to simplify why Kempo continues to skate around the outskirts of the adult mainstream workout scene:

Crossfit: Seemingly America’s masculine response to yoga—it is intense, ultra-competitive, muscle stacking and rough on your joints! You’ll get your adrenaline fix and you’ll throw on the extra muscle and explosiveness that enables you to toss up a heavy bar with hundreds of pounds of iron on it—a solid hour of workout manliness. As for its practical utility, it’s minimal unless you’re training as a stunt double for a high-octane action flick or for a high impact professional sport. Indeed a lot of boxers and cross trainers practice crossfit. It is fun, extreme, and highly effective at accomplishing its athletic goals.

Spin—Also quite American in character, it is quick, to the point, monotonous, intense and in some cases highly competitive. For professionals on a tight schedule, you’ll get a bangin’ cardio workout in a short amount of time. While it lacks an effective total body workout, the sweat you’ll have to show for it makes you feel like you indeed got one. If you’re looking to keep your workout as quick and simple as possible, you will bang out your cardio, get your workout fix and be on with some extra pep in your step for the rest of the day!

Yoga—I gotta take my hat off these folks, and I feel the need to mention here, that I actively practice yoga. How the original pitchers of this art succeeded in usurping the American workout landscape with an Indian, vegan and spiritual workout form…I’ll never quite understand, but some academic with expertise in pop culture should write a book about it because I’d read it! To its credit, yoga is a healthy total body workout that builds practical strength and emphasizes breathing, flexibility and balance. With the exception of some forms, yoga minds the joints and is the healthiest of the aforementioned workouts. It is less intense than crossfit and can be highly repetitive, although not nearly as much as spin.

But while all of these diverse styles have exploded onto the mainstream adult workout circuit, how come martial arts like Kempo have not? After all, Kempo offers a healthy total body cardio workout that builds muscle, increases balance and flexibility, and cultivates the practical skill of self-defense.

After a lot of meditation on this subject, I came up with only one clear answer—SPANDEX!

The one thing that Crossfit, Spin and Yoga have in common is spandex! It has become so commonplace that is the norm. So much so that it characterizes our everyday wardrobe in addition to our preferred fitness attire. We wear it to the café, to the store, to our childrens’ schools—we love to see our selves looking fit and we want everybody else to observe and bear witness!

Contrarily, when you enroll in a dojo the very first thing we do is give you a gi—an oversized jacket and pants that shrouds your awesomeness! Yes, we want you to shroud yourself, partly due to the ancient cultural tradition of the martial arts, but also so that our practitioners can focus on the task at hand.

I don’t care who you are, if you are working out at a yoga, spin or crossfit gym—admit it—you are spending just as much time checking out your peers and/or comparing yourself to them as you are working out! As a person who has spent a considerable amount of time working out in these environments, I too plead guilty here.

The gi answers that dilemma in simple fashion—cover it up so you can focus on what is important.

I am 100% certain that if Urban Kempo changed its dress code, if I taught women dressed like that girl in the above picture how to use nunchucks, that we would convert a slew of crossfitters, spinners and yogis. But I don’t, I teach Kempo to people dressed in full gi’s like Tracy (below, and yes, I chose a somewhat goofy shot to accentuate my point so what! You get it).

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Daring to do martial arts means not only daring to do something different, but wearing something different. And what one wears has an enormous impact on one’s self image and as a result, comfort level.

The gi is simply not normal and it never will be. Or it least its not supposed to be. Personally, I’ve always tended to challenge the status quo because I find it boring. And if its not boring now, it will be soon. Thats just the way it goes. The reality is that if the right forward thinkers decide to make the jump into the gi, then the masses will follow–pop culture in a nutshell. Personally, and I could be bias here, I think Urban Kempo is on its way in that direction and I am thrilled to see our adult classes grow.

So there is my answer! The only real impediment to Kempo in it's quest for the adult mainstream is SPANDEX! 

Give me a dojo full of half naked people and I’ll show you a dojo full of a much wider range of consumers. Shoot, we’re already seeing studios’ attempt at this in the form of UFC Gym, cardio kickboxing and body combat schools. But these are not martial arts schools and thus enjoy a greater leeway in negotiating their martial arts image with popular cultural tastes and preferences. The actual UFC's heritage, in addition, are in gi-oriented cultures. But the promoters realized the same thing that I'm getting at here--in order to mainstream efficiently, the gi had to come off.

Meanwhile, schools like Urban Kempo are destined to remain true to tradition, and are thus destined to the outskirts of the mainstream. But hey, that keeps us authentic and lets face it, how many of us ever really felt like we belonged in the mainstream anyway?

Forever spandexless,

Sensei

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Meet Fo-Sho!

This is Mary, AKA Fo-Sho. Mary is an original Urban Kempo junkie that enrolled under me years back when I was a burgeoning instructor in Alexandria:

Hailing from Kentucky, the 5’5 librarian weighing in around a buck o’five is the oldest of 7 children. She is a wife and a mother who holds a passion for cooking (especially tacos), as well as baking for anyone with a sweet tooth. Upon first glance our Fo-Sho strikes one as being somewhat of a textbook Suzy homemaker right?

Mary, or Fo-Sho as we like to call her, is one of the most no-nonsense individuals that I’ve ever met. One of the hardest workers in the room, and equipped with a rare mixture of technique, power and speed, she takes her martial arts seriously and is incredibly focused when sporting her 2nd degree brown belt. She is loyal to the bone–whether to her beloved Wildcats, her husband Tim or to her dojo. And she will be one of the highest caliber black belts that Urban Kempo will probably ever produce.

One of the 5 Shaolin Principles is Self Control. A black belt should develop speed and precision, always striking with as much or as little power as intended. Here is Mary demonstrating her control. At Urban Kempo we take our time in awarding Black Belts, mainly because of the emphasis that we place on this one principle.

When I met Mary roughly 4 years ago she told me candidly that she was scoping out a number of schools in the area and wanted to make the right decision. She then pulled out a pen and a pad and proceeded with a series of interrogating questions about my dojo. At the time, I thought to myself that this woman needed to take a chill pill. But in retrospect, her behavior makes a lot of sense as I’ve learned over the years that Mary has a unique sense of dedication and loyalty, and she holds herself to very high standards in these regards. To commit herself to something and have to retract would be painstakingly hard for her.

A few years ago when Urban Kempo was a simple vision with no address and no bank account, and when most people thought it would never materialize, Mary called me up and asked if there was anything she could do to help, even offering to invest financially. This made a huge impression on me, as I was aware that Mary and her husband Tim lived on government salaries (Tim works for the DEA) and held aspirations to start a family. Fortunately I was able to obtain the funds without having to take her up on the offer, but it is certainly the intention that counts here.

I’ve learned in life that gallant displays of character are shown when people are willing to give and/or act, knowing that they potentially stand to lose something. Keep in mind that at the time Mary reached out to me, it was unlikely that Urban Kempo was going to succeed. Most of the adult students who had been previously training under me, while vocal in their support of Urban Kempo, decided to remain with what was the more stable entity at the time. Indeed, finding real estate was almost impossible for the inexperienced entrepreneur that I was, and Clarendon landlords aren’t typically compelled to rent prime real estate to martial artists. Compounding these issues was the fact that I didn’t have a trainer during this period, further contributing to notions of instability and risk. But these obstacles didn’t deter Mary.

People like Mary do the things that they do because the value of their self respect as it applies to doing what they feel is the right thing to do outweighs the fear of losing something, or contrarily, not gaining something desirable. Subsequently, these people have to pass up opportunities at times and suffer losses more than the next person as a result of their tendency to act on principle rather than self interest. In a world that thrives on the principle of self interest, why would anyone choose to live their lives like this?

Having been hospitalized and suffered permanent injuries for saving a person from a violent beating, and having been fired for standing up for fellow employees, I can attest that the people we stick our necks out for rarely reciprocate in the same fashion. But we don’t risk ourselves in this respect expecting something in return. We take these actions because we have a strong sense of right and wrong and a well-cultivated instinct that compels us to act in alignment with it. People who tend to risk their own wellbeing–whether financial, physical or emotional– invariably carry a unique burden specific to that lifestyle. But what they ultimately gain is so much more valuable.

The quality of the community that grows around you, no matter how big or small, grows in conjunction with your willingness to sacrifice. If you aren’t willing to put yourself out there for people, then the quality of your community will reflect that. I’m not talking about doing favors for people (I find that most people who do ‘favors’ take inventory of them). I’m talking about taking risks and/or making sacrifices for other people that aren’t easy to make. Even when the person that you’re making the sacrifice for doesn’t respond positively, other people recognize you as someone that is special. And slowly but surely you’ll notice that a cadre of loyal and similarly principled people have gravitated towards you out of both admiration and identification–birds of a feather do flock together.

From day one and throughout Urban Kempo’s first year when we were holding lessons in parks, Mary was the most consistent adult showing up for the Iwo Jima workouts. When we finally landed our Clarendon address, Mary and Tim competed in my circuit training sessions, racing around the building, jumping rope in the dojo and doing burpees on dusty and nail spattered floors. Here again, she could have decided that it was a poor investment of her time and energy to meet up at parks and in backyards to practice a curriculum that was changing constantly and was potentially deadened, but she remained committed.

In 2013 Mary became pregnant with her son Max and continued working out with us until she was 8 months pregnant. At some point we agreed that the time had come for her to stop wearing her belt as the little girl from Kentucky had been showing for some time and the belt began to look like a ribbon! She persevered through our workouts, and learned how to execute the challenging movements and pivots in the midst of full-blown pregnancy. We missed her that August as month 9 arrived and as she geared up for her new life as a mother. After a short hiatus, she was back in action in October without having missed a beat. Needless to say the dojo was elated upon her return.

Fo-Sho is a staple of the Urban Kempo dojo. A time-efficient woman who arrives just prior to her workouts (her very first nickname was ‘Fo-Till’, referring to the time as she tended to arrive four minutes prior to workouts), she exercises hard, and departs quickly to get back to her family life. You may want to catch a few seconds of her time if you’re fortunate enough share a workout with her. A woman who genuinely enjoys helping others, she’ll go out of her way to help you in any way she can.

True to the Urban Kempo dogma of prioritizing the experience over the belt, when I asked Mary what rank she was after having been without gi’s for our first year in the parks, she’d forgotten her rank—it wasn’t important to her. Like most of us at Urban Kempo, she’s here for the experience and is perfectly content with that.

I always had a very good relationship with Mary, but when she offered to invest in Urban Kempo during our most challenging hour, I saw that she was ready to risk something special of hers for the betterment of something that she believed in. I saw that rare person that only comes along once in a while if your lucky. And she has done nothing but strengthen that persona ever since.

So thank you Mary, AKA Fo-Sho AKA Fo-Till AKA Fo-Shizzle AKA Fo-Sho-No-Sho for being who you are and for blessing our dojo community with so many real life examples of what Kempo means to so many of us! Indeed, one of the many Urban goers that sacrificed in efforts to make the Urban Kempo project a success, our community owes you a big thank you. And if you ever need someone to get your back, you know where to go! We got you at 3000 North Washington Boulevard, STE C!

Till next time,

Sensei

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The Logo

The story of Urban Kempo’s logo goes back to its founding:

I realized that I had to create a logo in 2012 when it became evident that we were going to seek out a space and a name for our community. While I am a man of vision in some respects, a man of art I definitely am not. So when it came to designing a symbol to represent us, I needed help. I could have paid some random artist to help with the logo, but when something is so close to your heart, it is almost impossible to pass that responsibility on to a stranger.

Luckily, I had Ron. Ron was the second person that I had trained fully from white belt to black belt, and to this day I continue to train him and his two children. I’ve always said this and I’ll say it again, there is no better way to get to know people than to teach the whole family.

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Similarly, Ron understood my dojo as well or better than anyone. So when I needed help making a logo that best represented my vision, it made sense to call him. And it helped that he used to work at Marvel!

I find that many martial arts logos portray an eastern mystique without offering real insights from Eastern traditions in the dojo. While some dojos are to be commended for their authentic work, others are treating the Eastern mystique as a saleable commodity.

Full Disclosure: I am not a mediation master and I do not want my clients to think that I am. I am not from an Asian country, and I do not speak Chinese.  I played basketball and football. I eat pizza and I grew up watching Growing PainsThe Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and yes, Beverly Hills 90210 every Wednesday night at 8:00! I know all of the words to Ice Ice Baby, Han Solo is my favorite Star Wars character and I cried in ET when I was 5 years old.

I was on Staten Island during 9/11 and watched the Twin Towers cast a dark cloud of smoke over Brooklyn for the ensuing two weeks. Both my grandfathers flew in WWII and both of my older cousins attended the Naval Academy. I have three sisters—Cathy, Debbie and Caitlin, the oldest of which is a doctor, the middle one died of a heroin addiction, and my baby sister is a teacher and the proud mother of three. I have almost 30 little cousins who were raised on Kraft Macaroni, Spaghettio’s and any assortment of cereals.

Given my unique American heritage, I realized that my logo could not suggest that I would sit you down over a cup to tea and enlighten you through my Zen wisdom.

However, I do understand what it feels like to grow up in and around various American cities, particularly Washington DC. I understand many of the stresses and challenges that we face as a society, and I think I’ve stumbled upon a decent remedy to those challenges by exploiting the art of Shaolin Kempo in an entirely selfish and Western fashion.  

So I chose a DC landmark contrasted by an eastern sun to symbolize that we are Westerners utilizing an Eastern art to help us cope with the challenges of our society. In particular, as I ran the mock-ups by my friends, there was criticism over using the Capitol Building because many said that it screamed politics too loudly.  My response was exactly—the capital building symbolizes a lot of what we both love and struggle with here in the DC area.

The symbolism of the cats is two fold. Most martial arts schools portray themselves through the images of dragons and tigers, but I move like the leopard—an animal that utilizes speed over brawn, and places a heavy emphasis on precision. I asked Ron to show me a mock-up with some leopards hanging out on the steps of the Capitol. When he came back with his mock up, there were two cats—a big one and a little one.

The draft was totally different from my original vision, but as soon as I saw it, something powerful hit me. Only Ron, a father within my dojo, would have thought to put a daddy leopard with a baby leopard.

In fact, when I’d departed from the school that I had grown and managed for years, the entire roster was filled with families. Not just kids, but families like Ron’s—fathers studying along side their sons, or mothers with their sons, or mothers with daughters, or any combination in between. And without the support from many of those families, there would probably not be an Urban Kempo. I used to derive an immense amount of joy by reading down my roster at the end of the day and noticing all of the families that were practicing under me.

This totally made our community unique. And only Ron could have nailed that on the head without my asking for it. Whether you see a mommy or a daddy leopard, it is simply adorable and, depending on who you are, profoundly meaningful.

The rest of logo is self-explanatory. The Chinese characters read Shaolin Chuan Fa, ultimately translating into “Little Pine Tree Forest, Way of the Fist”. The “little pine tree forest” being Shaolin, the birthplace of Kung Fu and the martial arts, and “way of the fist” meaning the martial art itself.

The tree in the original mock-up was a vestige from a logo within our dojo’s lineage, but I decided immediately to eliminate it as it seemed to both clutter the picture and begin to cloud the art with too many Eastern symbols.

As for the font, that was easy. I met with Ron over at the Chart House in Old Town one afternoon and he pulled out a number of options. I simply picked out the one that I liked the best—clean, sharp, contemporary and clear. When you come to our dojo you’ll notice its minimalist character. No trophies, no pictures on the wall (excepting our logo), and no merchandise. I personally feel like these things clutter the place and distract from the experience.

When we finished with the mock-ups, Ron passed them to his friend and former colleague Hector, an artist at Marvel. Hector did a meticulous job of refining the logo into a piece of artwork. To have taken all of these elements—the Cap building, leopards, Chinese characters, and sun—and fit them into a single logo that doesn’t crowd the eyes and mind, took a skillful touch. I was beyond fortunate to have had him as a contact in this endeavor.

A lot of ideas, history and effort went into the Urban Kempo logo. I hope this blog was helpful in clarifying what it symbolizes. I get excited at the opportunity to explain it as a representation of our community. There is a lot packed into that little picture and I hope that when you look at it, you see a little more Urban Kempo in it than you did before!

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WELCOME!

Welcome to Urban Kempo’s blog!  Here you’ll learn about our unique history, catch glimpses of our trajectory and come to understand martial arts as we understand them.  Kempo means different things for different people.  This ranges from how to fight, to getting in shape, to building confidence to being part of a community.  I hope that these blog posts help to clarify the abstract meanings of martial arts as our evolution has and continues to redefine them within these walls and beyond.

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